In one of his final broadcasts before defecting to satellite radio, Howard Stern was working himself into a lather.
"I've come in every day and given my best under ridiculous circumstances, between the editing, the commercial load and the censorship," Stern told Tom Chiusano, general manager of his flagship station, WXRK, who was foiling his plans for an on-air farewell this week. Once he moves on, he declared, "I'm doing the things I'm not allowed to do here."
Which raises an intriguing question: If Stern can do whatever the #!@&** he wants at Sirius Satellite Radio -- curse, get anatomically explicit and cavort with naked strippers -- will that defuse the rebellion against authority that has long defined his career? For a man who thrives on pushing the boundaries, is there such a thing as too much freedom?
Stern, clad in a leather jacket and his trademark tinted shades, bats down the idea. "I've already had a million fights over at satellite, everything from the equipment to the computer system," he says. "I am always in an argument with someone. That doesn't change. The thing that changes is there is total freedom to create. It's almost like being a baby in broadcasting again. I have let myself get so beaten down by the FCC. I've become so accustomed to their abuse, like a battered wife. I didn't even know how dead I was inside, creatively."
To his fans, who must weigh paying for a satellite receiver and a $12.95-a-month subscription to follow their hero to Sirius, Stern is being liberated after a quarter-century in commercial radio. To his detractors, he is a foul-mouthed, sexually obsessed menace whose departure from the free airwaves is long overdue. To the media, he is an irresistible story -- the current blitz includes "60 Minutes," "Today," David Letterman, Bill O'Reilly, Larry King and Jon Stewart -- who gives news organizations license to walk on the smutty side while pretending to hold their collective noses.
A master of self-promotional hype, Stern views himself as a revolutionary. He has, however, been hampered by more than $2 million in fines by the Federal Communications Commission, which prompted his employer, Viacom, to crack down on the raunchy material that had always been his forte.
"I stopped doing a show that was honest," he says. "Why was I successful? Because of a dirty word? No. Dirty words, that would last a week on the radio. . . . Our show was a reality show. That was the appeal of it. It wasn't about bathroom [humor] or lesbian strippers. It was real guys talking real thoughts, like how they talk when the cameras and microphones are off."
At 120-channel Sirius, where Stern debuts Jan. 9, entertainment president Scott Greenstein says the number of subscribers has already jumped from 700,000 to 2.5 million since the deal was announced 14 months ago, although Sirius still has about half the dues-paying members of rival XM Radio.
"I'm a huge believer that he's the comedic icon of our time," says Greenstein, who signed Stern to an unprecedented $500 million, five-year contract. "There are very few things proven in any medium, and you've got to pay for those things."
The long-haired host has also cut a deal with iN Demand Networks to make television shows from the radio broadcasts that will cost $13.99 a month and initially include access to 40 hours of past shows. Unlike Stern's previous programming on the E! network, these will not be bleeped and the women will not have their private parts digitally obscured.
"The phenomenon that is Howard Stern is not just about naked women," says Robert Jacobson, iN Demand's chief executive. "He gets more out of a celebrity interview than anyone else in the media." Still, a network fact sheet notes that the tapes include 93 porn stars, 33 women spanked by Stern and 1,000 pairs of breasts exposed.
During last year's presidential campaign, Stern turned into one of George W. Bush's most vocal opponents.
Although he had made a brief and whimsical run for New York governor in 1994, Stern was dead serious this time, urging his roughly 10 million listeners to oppose the president and strike a blow against the FCC's indecency campaign.
This year, he hasn't talked politics much.
"I got clobbered for it," Stern says. "Look what happened. Clear Channel fired me. Don't think for a minute this was about indecency. Clear Channel as a company decided to" -- here he uses a street term for a sex act that may be suitable for satellite radio but not a family newspaper -- "the Bush administration and the Republican Party and the religious right to get favors, to make sure they can expand their media empire. When I came out against the war and came out against Bush and told people to vote for Kerry, they fired me two days later.
"Look, this is not all about the F-word and indecency. This is about thoughts and ideas. The government is now in the process of racketeering against radio stations." If the stations "don't kowtow and bow on these fines, they slow down the approval process on them buying radio stations."
Clear Channel Communications dumped Stern from six of its stations early last year, citing an interview in which Stern asked the man who appeared with Paris Hilton in a porn video whether he engaged in anal sex and referred to the size of his penis. Spokesmen for the company and the FCC declined to comment.
Yet the question lingers: In a sex-drenched entertainment culture, why did Stern become such a target?
"I'm the biggest, probably the number one guy in radio," he says. "Who are they gonna go after? You get Stern, the rest of them fall into line. When Clear Channel fired me, holy mackerel, every radio personality in this country cut back. There's fear like you wouldn't believe. I'm done with that."
For those who have never tuned in, Stern is more than the one-dimensional shock jock suggested by his image. He conducts revealing interviews with actors, musicians and the likes of Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani. He kibitzes and feuds with his team in sitcomlike fashion. And, yes, he tries to bribe women into disrobing in the studio.
Over the decades, most comics who have clashed with government and corporate authorities -- Lenny Bruce, the Smothers Brothers -- have specialized in social and political humor. Stern's battles, by contrast, have largely involved what might be termed comedic porn. But some entertainers say that doesn't begin to explain his evolution as the mainstream media's edgiest funnyman.
"In stand-up, some people believe it's easier to be funny if you work blue," says Darrell Hammond, the "Saturday Night Live" impersonator, who has appeared on Stern's show several times. "In radio, people think it's easier to be a shock jock. Neither is true. Howard is funny because he's funny. One of the funniest features is when his mother would call in and take him down a peg, or he'll take himself down a peg."
Stern's bad-boy persona dates back to the 1980s and Washington's DC-101, which fired him, and New York's WNBC, which also fired him. But the Long Island native bounced back, scoring not only in syndication but with a best-selling book and popular movie, "Private Parts."
Indeed, he is a master at morphing and marketing himself, whether by selling video and audio tapes or airing a 1993 pay-per-view New Year's Eve special that shattered records when 400,000 households signed up. All this is eagerly lapped up by Stern's core audience, 18- to 34-year-old men, who are much prized by advertisers.
The essential joke has always been how far Stern can go without getting smacked down. But he rejects the notion that he is jumping to satellite just to be filthier. Instead, he talks about how Chris Rock is hilarious on HBO specials but would lose his punch if the same programs had to be edited to meet NBC standards. In Stern's view, the move to satellite is less about lesbians and more about liberation to be himself.
Whatever the rationale, this remains the biggest gamble in radio history. Sirius's Greenstein says he'll be overjoyed if 10 percent of the Stern audience follows him to the pay service, but the technology is still unfamiliar to most Americans.
"I think a lot of Stern's fans, especially the diehard fans, will fork over the money," says Adam Jacobson, an editor at the industry paper Radio & Records. "If anything, they're going to abandon the medium that refused to stick up for the self-proclaimed King of All Media. But I have friends who listen to Howard Stern who've said, 'I don't know if I want to spend all that money.' Sirius is putting all its eggs in one basket."
But Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of the magazine Talkers, says Stern "is to satellite radio what Milton Berle was to television, the big star who becomes a focal point for a new medium." Harrison scoffs at Stern's bawdy reputation, saying that in the Internet age he "is way down at the mild end of the spectrum in terms of pushing the envelope on sexuality. He just happens to do it on the radio, which is regulated by the government."
The new Sirius channels will feature one program in which Jeff the Drunk, one of Stern's Wack Pack regulars, receives therapy; another with Stern's parents; a session with a phone-sex practitioner called "Tissue Time"; and a show with Bubba the Love Sponge, who was also fired by Clear Channel. There is a "Howard 100 News" operation that features mainly reporting and interviews with the show's regular guests and hangers-on.
The news team, Stern insists, is composed of "real journalists. The first thing I said to them was, 'You have full autonomy. If I do something wrong and you want to investigate it, you go after it.' Boy, am I sorry I said that. They've been chasing me down on everything."
A longtime Stern lament is that he has never gotten his due even as he spawned a legion of imitators.
"The media probably doesn't understand me," says Stern. "The show hasn't been given credit. I'm seeing glowing praise of Oprah Winfrey. Oprah Winfrey took the Phil Donahue show and cloned it; that's her contribution. Do I sound bitter? Perhaps. Because what my show did was create a revolution. Go back and listen to what radio sounded like when I came on the scene. You didn't have a Rush Limbaugh type. The host didn't give his view. . . .
"Somehow the media have gotten it in their head that I should appeal to everyone. You read an article by someone who clearly doesn't listen to me, and they'll go, 'Well, there's many people who are outraged and don't like him.' Now what performer do you know in the history of this country who appealed to everyone? Johnny Carson? My mother hated Johnny Carson."
For two decades, Stern blabbed about his wife, Alison, and the joke was that although he was tempted by the semi-clothed starlets who paraded through his studio, he had to remain faithful. After their 2001 divorce, he began dating model Beth Ostrosky.
The change in Stern's personal life may have accomplished what the legal firepower of the FCC could not. Although he still spills his guts on the air, there is greater restraint on matters close to home.
"There's a personal line you can't cross," says Stern, who once joked on the air about his wife's miscarriage. "I've always fought with that in my own mind. After my divorce, I didn't think it was fair to my ex-wife to talk about certain things. My kids, I've always kept a lot off the air. I practically have no life as it is. I've destroyed many a relationship. I don't have any friends."
As for Ostrosky, "I've got a great relationship with my girlfriend. I don't want to [mess] it up by working too many hours. There are days when I come home and she goes, 'Eww, wow, why did you talk about that?' And I go, 'I'm Howard Stern, man, it comes out.' "
Stern, who first talked to XM five years ago, insists he would have quit radio had the satellite option not emerged. "I hated going to work for the last 10 years," he says. Stern says he simply would have pursued his other ventures, which now include a cartoon series based on his high school years and a movie remake of "Porky's."
He now describes himself as a "content provider" who is "going to make radio deals for people like Hollywood makes for film and television." He can wax as enthusiastically about Sirius's gay channel, Springsteen channel and Martha Stewart channel as about his own.
His show, ultimately, is about honesty -- sometimes cringe-inducing honesty -- and he is the same way in interviews, where he cops to a heavy schedule of psychotherapy.
"I think I sometimes come across as very arrogant," Stern admits. "Although, God, there isn't a more neurotic guy on the radio than me, a guy who wakes up in the morning and wants to vomit. The arrogance comes from a tremendous insecurity. I'm the guy who can't bear to have anyone not come with us to satellite. You know, How can you leave me? How can everyone in the world not be listening to me? I have this delusion."